Archive for October, 2006

Saving us from mellow seniors

October 25, 2006 2 comments

You’re a senior citizen, and along with 54 other seniors, you help out at the public library; shelving books, assisting patrons, etc. 

Take a drug test.

Did I say 55 total volunteers?  Now they have 2. 

Of course county officials blame their insurance company.  The only question is if the stupidity resides in them, or in their insurance company, or both.  Bonus question: assuming any of the senior citizens smoke pot, are pot-smoking civic-minded senior-citizens a danger to anyone?

(from ***Dave)

Categories: Stupidity


October 23, 2006 Comments off

Creek Running North is a wonderful personal journal of environmental writer Chris Clarke, but you can’t go there to enjoy his beautiful prose.  Some sick person took strong exception to his blog and threatened violence against Mr. Clarke’s dog – apparently quite credibly.  So the author, with his family understandably reluctant to sacrifice their innocent nonhuman friend over a conflict between humans, has pulled Creek Running North off the net.

I am stymied, unable to find the right words…

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Oh, that’s just PEACHY

October 22, 2006 13 comments

No, this does NOT set my mind at ease…

Diebold Election Systems Inc. expressed alarm and state election officials contacted the FBI yesterday after a former legislator received an anonymous package containing what appears to be the computer code that ran Maryland’s polls in 2004.

Cheryl C. Kagan, a longtime critic of Maryland’s elections chief, says the fact that the computer disks were sent to her – along with an unsigned note criticizing the management of the state elections board – demonstrates that Maryland’s voting system faces grave security threats.
- Baltimore Sun: Former delegate gets purported Diebold code

I have said this before: votes should be recorded on paper by the voter

In our county, you fill the squares in with a marker, then feed the ballot through the scanner where it drops into a box.  If there is any question about the total, the ballots can be recounted – by hand, if necessary.  There are no ‘hanging chads’ or unverifiable digital totals, and the record is a stack of physical ballots, each one handled by a voter.

Categories: Politics

Practically begging for mockery…

October 21, 2006 Comments off

Quote of the week:
If they do not want to be mocked, let them stop being ridiculous. 
- From Monday Evening, reporting on a car sales event that mocks jihadists.

Man, I can think of SO many areas of life where that saying applies.  Definitely a keeper.

Categories: observations

The authority gradient

October 20, 2006 1 comment

Man-made disasters fascinate me.  Why was the space shuttle Challenger allowed to take off in conditions that violated NASA’s own rules?  How is it that captains of industry failed to consult an engineer on the condition of their dam on the South Fork of the Little Conemaugh river in Pennsylvania, ultimately obliterating Johnstown in 1889?  How did a mishandled safety test cause the worst nuclear accident in history?  Over the years I’ve read dozens of books about such events both large and small.

So naturally I taped Nova: The Deadliest Plane Crash on Tuesday night.  The episode set out to answer just how, on a fog-shrouded runway in the Canary Islands in 1977, did two fully-loaded 747 aircraft collide, killing nearly 600 people?

Pilot error, as it turned out, but the pilot who made the biggest error was KLM’s most experienced guy.  He trained other pilots and was so respected that KLM featured him in their adverts.  He was stone-cold sober and there was nothing bad going on in his life.  His lifetime of rationalism and care just… missed.

So what the hell happened?

Nova did a fantastic job presenting the sequence of events that led to the flaming horror.  I would love to have the episode shown in high school classes, tying together many areas of working life:

  • The Spanish separatist bomb that closed the airport both the planes (and many others) were supposed to use, diverting them to a smaller airport that could not handle their passengers

  • Economic pressures to take off again as soon as possible
  • The role played by passenger dissatisfaction
  • Sheer bad luck that the two 747’s were blocking the runway entrance from the other planes
  • The KLM pilot’s decision to fuel, not just for the short hop to a nearby island, but for the subsequent trip to the Netherlands
  • Overworked, underprepared tower crew, whose non-standard terminology contributed to miscommunication between the two planes and the tower
  • The narrow, poorly-marked runway at the small airport
  • Horrible timing of the weather, dropping visibility to less than 500 meters in a few minutes
  • Overlapping radio signals that obliterated two crucial pieces of information
  • The role of “cockpit culture”, which was found to have prevented the last, most important communication that would have saved all those people in spite of the other factors.

That last item was the most interesting.  Few man-made disasters are the result of a split-second of inattention.  Usually a number of factors, individually quite improbable, must line up like the pins in a lock tumbler for the last, fatal mistake to make history.

Nova described the “authority gradient” of cockpit culture 30 years ago.  The Captain sat atop a more or less Olympian pedestal, pretty much immune from criticism.  Co-pilots and crew were not encouraged to question the Captain’s actions; indeed, to do so was to risk one’s career.  The more exalted the pilot’s reputation, the less anyone could say anything.

The Pan Am pilot made minor mistakes navigating in the fog and communicating with the tower.  The tower made minor mistakes communicating with both planes (and in listening to a soccer game while 600 lives hung in the balance).  And the KLM pilot, perhaps believing he had been given clearance to take off, powered up his engines…

“No!” said the co-pilot.  “We have not been given clearance to take off!”

The most senior, experienced pilot, chagrined, powers down.  There is more chatter.  Then he powers back up again, starting his plane down the runway in the dense fog…

1706:32.43 KLM 3 Is he not clear, then?
1706:34.10 KLM 1 What do you say?
1706:34.15 PA ? Yup.
1706:34.70 KLM 3 Is he not clear, that Pan American?
1706:35.70 KLM 1 Oh, yes. [emphatically]

Perhaps because of the KLM pilot’s very senior position, neither the copilot nor flight engineer questions the pilot again, and the impact occurs about 13 seconds later. Based on the Pan Am cockpit voice recording, investigators determined that the Pan Am flight crew saw the KLM coming at them out of the fog about nine seconds before impact. The Pan Am captain says “There he is … look at him! Goddamn, that [expletive deleted] is coming!” and his copilot yells “Get off! Get off! Get off!” The Pan Am pilot guns the engines but it’s too late. At 1706:47.44, the KLM pilot screams, and the collision occurs.
- Deadliest Plane Crash, Final Eight Minutes

When powering up the engines a second time, an opportunity existed to avoid the crash.  Clearance to take off had not been given, and both the co-pilot and flight engineer knew it.  But no further objection is made until the plane is hurtling down the runway at almost takeoff speed.

There are few good models for organizations to function with no authority gradient.  Extremely experienced, capable people are nearly always right, in a setting where being wrong can have terrible consequences.  But that is exactly the point; even a brilliant, experienced pilot can have one moment off his peak. In fact, it probably happens fairly often.  Usually, the moment passes without incident.  But if enough problems line up, and the authority gradient is too steep…

According to Nova, pilot training has changed in the years since the accident.  The authority gradient has been somewhat levelled.  Now pilots are taught to encourage questions or even negative feedback from crew.  The importance of dissent is proportional to the lives that hang in the balance.

I have seen this same phenomenon in one case study after another: the trusted, authoritative leaders were simply too powerful, or feared, or trusted, or even beloved to question, or did not conceive themselves as ever being mistaken, and the mind-blowing, catastrophic mistake that follows. 

The nagging voice of doubt is seldom popular, but it’s often a crucial view from another angle.

Legislative airheads

October 19, 2006 6 comments

Every once in a while politicians pass legislation on a subject on which I happen to have done some personal study, and I find myself clucking in disapproval at how they could be so stupid.  Their choices seem inexplicable other than by special interest.

Turns out that feeling is probably about right.  Ed Brayton of Dispatches talks to his good friend, the corporate lobbyist:

What he found out was that the legislators, with only rare exceptions, are pretty much completely clueless about most issues. Sure, you might get someone on an education committee that was a school administrator, or an attorney on the judiciary committee, but for the most part the legislators are constantly voting for, and even writing, legislation on subjects they know virtually nothing about. They are given their positions by lobbyists and are in no position to evaluate the accuracy of what they’re told.
- Dispatches From The Culture Wars: The danger of ignorant legislators

There’s more, and it ain’t pretty…

Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.”

It cuts across every issue, from counterterrorism to science standards for schools.  Go read the rest of it – it won’t make you feel any better but at least we can share the misery.

Categories: Politics

Perfect vacation spot

October 18, 2006 2 comments

S. Korean tourists are actually vacationing in North Korea

Not much development means unspoiled beaches.  The locals are delighted to see you, and the streets are quiet (no fuel!)  Sounds very relaxing if you don’t mind power outages, bugged hotel rooms, and the general creepyness of visiting a country led by a madman…

Categories: business

Hot tea

October 17, 2006 2 comments

It would hardly be surprising to learn that the British think Tea is good for you.  (In other news, the Pope is Catholic and the sky is blue.)  They say it doesn’t dehydrate you – “that’s an urban myth” – and of course it contains “antioxidants” and everybody knows how great those are.  :-/

My great-grandmother was about as Brit as they come, and that has filtered down to the current generation.  Even today I have two or three cups of tea every day along with whatever coffee comes my way. Lately, both have been decaf after 12:noon but oh-well.

A picture of a double-walled steel mug full of tea would be pretty boring, no?  Shown here is my little pocket flashlight shining through the glass carafe’ of our Mr Coffee tea-maker, which is really just a coffee-maker that we have dedicated to making tea.  We have another one that we use for coffee.

Categories: Geeky, Safety & Health

One Democrat I won’t be voting for

October 15, 2006 5 comments

It’s no secret that I am quite disgusted with the Republican party.  Starting with the Reagan administration, the Grand Old Party has been slowly taken over by anti-science Bible-thumpers who seem intent on bringing the second coming or at least the end of the world.  And as someone observed, the strongest predicter of how Bush will go on any issue is whatever way reduces personal liberty.

I’m not that happy with the Democratic party, either.  They have some great people (who have been much maligned by the Republican propaganda machine) but they also tolerate people whom they should eject.  Their catapult is getting rusty and there are several Democrats I’d like to use it on.  In fact, that is the topic of a future post that may be quite amusing to some of my readers.

It might seem obvious to “send a message” by voting third-party but the only one that’s even close is the Libertarians and I’m too lib-rool for that.  I do think every legislator needs at least one high-level Libertarian staffer who will argue with them over every bill they vote on.  It would help filter out some of the extremely idiotic spending and foreign adventurism.

Fifty years ago I might have been a Republican but on balance, today I have to go with Democrat.  All arguments to the contrary I have to vote for the best party I think can win.  Nationally I could vote Green but they really have no chance.  Idealism feels good but it won’t stop the juggernaut. 

Except… in Illinois we really have no choice for governor.  Both the Democrat Rod Blagaojevich and the Republican Judy Bar Topinka appear to be as corrupt (and possibly incompetent) as can possibly be. 

A recent debate at the Chicago Tribune between the two would have made me pull out my hair, if I had any. While the Tribune hasn’t made an endorsement yet, it looks like it will be of the “lesser of two weevels” kind.  Lazy, corrupt governors seems to be an Illinois specialty.

Conspicuously absent from the debate (because he was not invited) was the Illinois Green Party Candidate, Rich Whitney.  His platform could inspire our state to build more long-term environmental policies and correct our broken school financing. And from what I’ve been able to gather elsewhere he is apparently not a corrupt windbag, which would be a real change for our state.  In fact, he’s a pretty sharp guy, so I’m voting Green for Illinois governor. 

Imagine what a lightning bolt that would be!  Both the Republican and Democratic parties would have to think that one over for a long time…

Categories: Politics

Shuffling bikes around

October 11, 2006 2 comments

Wound up doing some impromptu bicycle mechaniking last night.  My son had an accident on his Bridgestone MB3 (a classic bike) and the upper headset bearing race broke.  He’ll also need a new left Shimano Deore shifter and brake handle.

The accident was caused by some broken pavement – thank you Town Of Normal – though my son is pretty much OK.  But it will take a while to scrounge up the ^^ quality parts (eBay will have them) and he needs another bike to ride in the meantime.

In the garage was an old GT hybrid bike in pretty fair condition but unused for several years.  After a quick trip for parts, I fixed a flat tire, installed some pedals, a kickstand, a new seat, some reflectors, and made adjustments.  It has an exceptionally large frame so *presto!* a usable bike for my 6-foot 2-inch son. 

Now for the slower, more exacting search for parts for the Bridgestone. 

Categories: Personal